The final four NFL teams give us a nice snapshot of what it takes to succeed in a given era. Philadelphia Eagles general manager Howie Roseman once told me that after every season, he compiles averages of the rosters of the final four teams—height, weight, speed, age, athletic traits—and sees if his team is missing something. This year, though, his survey might not be as useful—and not only because his team will account for a quarter of his report.
If you’re looking for great stories in these playoffs, you’ll find them. Minnesota just won as amazing a playoff game as you will ever see. The Jaguars are as fun a team as there’s been in years. But if you’re a front-office executive looking for team-building secrets, that’s where the problems start. Despite three of the best defenses in football making it this far, 2017 does not mark a permanent trend toward defensive football. Even though all four semifinalists rely on productive and diverse backfields, we’re not seeing a reversion to the days of dominant run games. And while Blake Bortles, Case Keenum, and Nick Foles are all still standing, the quarterback position isn’t dying; it’s just changing.
No, this is the year when a bunch of teams caught lightning in a bottle at the same time. It took a bit of tragedy and bad luck—and key injuries to superstars inarguably made this season worse—but we got a bit of a football education in the process: What happens to the NFL when the quarterback-driven league loses many of its quarterbacks? You get the Eagles, Vikings, and Jaguars all within a game of the Super Bowl.
The creepy dog mask that Lane Johnson wore around the field and in the locker room after the Eagles’ win over the Falcons is now sold out on Amazon, presumably meaning that countless fans at the NFC title game will be wearing them. This may be one of the most normal things you’ll see in these playoffs.
The weirdness abounds: Bortles is the most inconsistent passer in the league, according to Football Outsiders. Yet he vanquished the most consistent passer in the league, Ben Roethlisberger, over the weekend. And now he’ll take on the seventh-most-consistent passer in the league in Tom Brady. Bortles, who has ranked in the top 10 in interceptions in each season of his four-year career, will face the quarterback who is 0.2 points away from having the all-time lowest interception rate. (He’s tied for second in football history with an interception rate of 1.8 percent.) Brady has been Pro Football Focus’s highest-rated passer the past two seasons, while the highest any other remaining quarterback ranked in his last full season before this year was 25th. Both NFC title game quarterbacks were stuck under Jeff Fisher and considered non-prospects as recently as the summer of 2016.
Here’s how off-kilter this season has been—in graph form:
Half of the QB field is "Not These Things" this year pic.twitter.com/xjy6JT0HK5— Scott Kacsmar (@FO_ScottKacsmar) January 10, 2018
Scott Kacsmar divided all playoff quarterbacks into eight categories: Hall of Famers, future HOF locks, MVPs, Super Bowl winners and losers, Offensive Rookies of the Year, no. 1 overall picks, or none of those things. From 2012 through 2016, there was never more than one “none” in a given crop of eight QBs. This year there are four. The last time there were four “nones” in any playoffs was 1991; this year, three of them made the conference championship.
Statistically, this has been undoubtedly the worst season for major quarterback injuries in NFL history. And the leaguewide effect cannot be overstated. Removing Aaron Rodgers from the Packers leads to mediocrity (and firings!) in Green Bay, while Andrew Luck and Deshaun Watson never really got a chance to compete in the AFC South, which produced two playoff teams. Carson Wentz’s injury shook up the MVP race and made the Eagles a one-seed underdog last round. Hell, what would’ve happened if Sam Bradford hadn’t been injured in September and Keenum hadn’t ever gotten a chance?
On Monday, ESPN’s Rich Cimini wrote that the Jets could use the Jaguars as a model, essentially saying that you can win in the NFL without a good quarterback. This is true in the same way that it’s true that you can walk from Los Angeles to New York: yes, it’s possible, but there are easier ways. At the same time, the NFL is known as a copycat league, and teams typically copy the wrong things. You should rip off the Jaguars, but you should rip off their idea of building through free agency. Or you should learn from the number of teams stealing creative plays from college football. The one thing you should not do is try to win consistently without a quality quarterback.
These two points can coexist in the modern NFL: The next generation of quarterbacks will not be as good as the Brady-Manning-Brees-Roethlisberger generation, but having a good quarterback remains the best way to win. Yes, the stranglehold of Manning-Brady-Roethlisberger AFC title games will come to an end in the next few years (those three accounted for 14 of the past 16 AFC Super Bowl teams), but it’s not like the conference-winning quarterbacks in the NFC—Cam Newton, Matt Ryan, Russell Wilson—haven’t put up MVP-caliber numbers during their Super Bowl runs, either. If a bad quarterback makes the Super Bowl, it is an anomaly, not a trend.
So here’s what will happen: Franchise quarterbacks will continue to be important, but they won’t be so dominant that they are seen as the only way to win. Sports Illustrated’s Peter King made a point I agree with on Monday: “Don’t overrate this and think it means the decline in importance of the Franchise Quarterback. It doesn’t. Just think of championship weekend as an outlier.” King is absolutely right—the franchise quarterback is still by far the most important player in all of sports. There may just be fewer of them in the coming years.
So, other than the Patriots always being good and Keenum being shockingly clutch, what can we learn from this season?
1. Invest in and build a great unit: If you can’t be good at passing, just find something. In the absence of many great quarterbacks, teams are having success by being dominant at one or two things and just riding it. It’s too simplistic to say that the Eagles, Vikings, and Jaguars are complete teams that just lack a franchise quarterback. However, they do make up three of the top five teams in defensive DVOA. This is not an accident: The Jaguars spend more money on their defensive line than any other team in the NFL, and the Vikings spend the seventh most on their secondary. The Eagles spend across the board: They spent the sixth most on the offensive line and next year will spend the most at $49 million.
2. If you don’t have a franchise quarterback, have a plan: None of these non-Brady quarterbacks was dropped into an absolutely perfect situation with All-Pros surrounding them throughout the rest of the offense. The best pass-blocking team among them, according to Pro Football Focus, is the expensive Eagles group, which was eighth, while the Vikings and Jags were thoroughly mediocre. The Vikings are also 22nd in yards per rush, so the run game didn’t help take much pressure off of Keenum, either. The Jaguars, in particular, have tailored their game plan to minimize their quarterback’s inadequacies. This past weekend, Bortles led all passers in using play-action—something that helps less-skilled quarterbacks—doing so on 53 percent of his passes. In fact, all winning quarterbacks used play-action more often than their opponents last weekend. Meanwhile, Marcus Mariota used it just 6 percent of the time, and his coach, Mike Mularkey, has been fired. Correctly, I may add.
3. If you have a good quarterback, don’t screw him up: You may have noticed that there were some good quarterbacks who did not make the playoffs. Russell Wilson was sitting at home, as was Philip Rivers. Matthew Stafford and Dak Prescott both missed out, too. The problem is that their teams did the exact opposite of what the final four teams did: In most cases, they assumed their quarterback would solve all of their problems. Wilson was pressured an astounding 41 percent of the time during the season, while Rivers, Prescott, and Stafford were all pressured more than 36 percent of the time. Not to mention, only Wilson played on a team with a top-10 defense by yards per play allowed. Sure, there are all sorts of forces at work here: Other than Prescott, these guys are expensive, and that leaves less money to spend on the rest of the roster. But good quarterbacks are expensive, and you can still draft well, plan well, and spend well. The quarterback position is not dead, but the idea of only having a quarterback is.